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British Film Institute, Robin Hardy, The Wicker Man

Robin Hardy’s interview following The Wicker Man: The Final Cut on Sept 17th

Robin-Hardy

On September 17th at the British Film Institute, the premiere of the new restored print of THE WICKER MAN: THE FINAL CUT was screened with it’s director, Robin Hardy, taking to the stage after the screening for a Q&A.

Here is a transcript of that interview.

What was it like watching it tonight and is it “The Final Cut”?

I doubt it.

You’re not supposed to say that. Is this your preferred cut?

I think that the replacement of the first night, that’s where we see Christopher Lee in the garden and the snails and all that, is absolutely essential to the sense of the film. That’s what has been cut out of what we shall call the “British Version”.  Putting it back makes sense of the film, that I think is very important. The bit that I wanted to take out, and has been taken out, is a great deal more on the mainland before the film really starts, a sort of malarkey in the police station; making fun of Howie. In retrospect having directed it myself, so i can take the blame for that, i really thought that it was quite unnecessary because you get  a perfectly good idea of the sort of person Howie is from the very first scene when you see him with the old fisherman and right on through the film he doesn’t need an introductory segment. There are scenes in the police station that we have taken out that i think is an improvement too. I think keeping the religious service in the very beginning when you see him taking the sacrament, one of the possible changes that i could make to the film now, I’m not sure I would use the flashback to see that scene again.

Yes, because we see it twice.

I can’t see why! I suppose the maypole scene too.

Well, you can never have enough maypoles!

I don’t think any of this makes any difference to the sense of the film, whereas the scene of the first night, which i think has been brilliantly constructed, did. I mean to begin with that scene where Paul Giovanni sings “Gently Johnny” and we had the young man sent up for his initiation with Britt, tells us what kind of people these are. It tells us what kind of lorded’s rule if you like. Christopher i think rather relishes another title, what it is to see him conducting what is going on with this religion of his and his tenants in that way. It’s terribly important because we then understand who all the real players are and what they’re doing. We wonder from then on whether the detective in Howie will get the kind of messages that we’re getting from all these clues because of what he says in the big scene on the cliffs, where the girl brings him up through that cave. He and Christopher Lee confront each other, the words that Christopher says are the clue to really what the whole thing is about; the game, the game is over. The hunter has become the hunted. The thinking behind the book by Tony Schaffer, one of the greatest games players I’ve ever met, wrote probably the most important script and play about games playing, called SLEUTH. He saw it as a game, I saw it as real. But its much more than a game, its a black comedy and life is like that sometimes. In this case its one that has the most appalling ending from the point of view of poor Edward Woodward’s Howie.

Originally British Lion decided that this film was hellishly difficult to market. Was there a conspiracy, what was going on, why wasn’t this released in it’s own right?

Well it was made for political expediency because Shepperton which was the big studio was on land owned by British Lion, it would have been worth much more as land for housing. That was the period in British economic history called “asset stripping”. Prime Minister Heath at the time called it the “unacceptable face of capitalism” and the film trade union were prepared to do almost anything to stop the studio from selling it. There was building work going on and those on the board of the company, that didn’t want to close the company down, had to make a film. They looked around for a script and there sitting on the desk was THE WICKER MAN. Someone quickly signed a cheque and that was it. There’s never been easier financing for any picture. I don’t think any thought ever went into whether it would be a good or bad film, they had already under Peter Snell’s excellent guidance made a wonderful film called DON’T LOOK NOW directed by Nicolas Roeg. It would have been very difficult to fire Peter Snell as producer, based on his record at that point. So along comes THE WICKER MAN which they cant understand in the first place, they’ve no idea what is going on and all sorts of things that they didn’t recognise as being proper to a horror film and so they found it easy to say it was “undistributable”. Christopher Lee was furious with the way the film had been treated and took the film to Paris and entered into the Les Filmes du Fantastique Festival where it won the Grand Prix and probably the best review that I shall ever get from the film trade paper, Variety. It was very difficult for him then not to have the film distributed but he deliberately downgraded it by making it a second feature. That’s why some of the scenes got cut, because they had to make the film shorter in order to play with DON’T LOOK NOW. So about five scenes had to be cut out.

You were locked out of the editing room?

Yes we were locked out of the cutting room, but we had already finished the film and the prints had gone out to distributors in the United States and that was how we were first able to restore the film in the United States based on the print that Roger Corman held. We had to do it by what today’s standards are a very primitive process using the liquid gate process where we had to make internegatives of each single frame of the five minutes, so that’s a lot of frames. It wasn’t anything like as good of a result as what we have achieved here with this print because all the digital techniques we have had over the last 40 years make things a lot easier. Colourist’s can literally change the colour of an entire scene and therefore match the material. In the case of the American reconstruction i was never really worried that by using the internegative it looked very grainy, and so is this print a bit grainy, but its bound to be.

There’s sections in there that have come from a distribution print.

Yes, but it looks alright. I think most audiences will accept the images because they see them as night images and sometimes there’s a slight loss of sharpness and focus at night, like looking out of the window into the garden and the copulating snails!

Audience Q&A

Would you agree that the film really does transcend categorisation; horror, gothic, whatever?

That is triumphant but its also one of the problems that we’ve always faced with the film because cinema owners and the like have always wanted to be able to categorise the film and sales people always do, so its perfectly reasonable that they should. They want to be able to describe what they are selling, I think eventually its become almost a genre of its own. Quite often people in the business were making strange films with quirky scenes in them that were somewhat “Wicker Manish”. I think that’s fine. Why I’m trying to make the other two films in the trilogy is to show that it isn’t unique, you can create a beautiful beguiling atmosphere in a film which is basically a horror film in other ways and then sock it to your audience at the end with twice as much impact, whereas if you’ve done what most of our horror films today that haven’t got a pint of blood pouring out of a mouth in the first ten minutes, then you’ve somehow missed the bus.

I think it will be copied more, as far as the genre is concerned, when it was remade by the American indie company they didn’t really attempt to do that at all. I believe that Tony Schaffer is sitting up in Heaven somewhere cursing people who want to remake his work and of course they did it also with the film of SLEUTH, which was even more unbelievable than the one they did of THE WICKER MAN. I don’t think that remakes are a bad thing, i think the remake of THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR was absolutely brilliant, if not better than the first film. It is simply that in his curse where you single out really talented people who remake these films, (Harold) Pinter re-wrote the screenplay in the case of SLEUTH and Caine played an extraordinary role and he’s a brilliant actor, and so it went on. But as for changing all the sexes of everybody! In THE WICKER MAN it really is hard to see what the director had in mind, but he also is a brilliant director who has done wonderful work particularly in theatre.

I wanted to ask about the score and where you found Paul Giovanni?

I think one of the things is that the songs are used as dialogue but they don’t set out as they would in a musical. It’s just that the dialogue lapses into song and vice versa. The lyrics in the songs are very important because they say what we are trying to say in that particular part of the story. That is something that is particularly missing in the remake, it was basically just elevator music as they say in the States. I think what I’m interested in doing, and with the third film in particular, is using it to even greater effect and I think there’s a lot you can do in that area. Paul Giovanni was a great friend of Peter Schaffer. When we made that film, Tony was working with Hitchcock on FRENZY and had to go to New York to work with him, so he was only with us for the first week then after that Peter Schaffer really took over from him. As you know they were identical twins, so they also had a very good similar understanding of things. If I had problems with the script then i went to Peter or sometimes I spoke on the telephone to Tony in New York. Peter was a very close friend of Paul’s and recommended him. I think he was a wonderful choice. Apart from the fact that he sings beautifully, he understood the whole project and made a great contribution to it. I think he had actually done a musical in the States based on Shakespeare’s TWELFTH NIGHT, i think he was very interested in theatre and this was one of this first cinematic outings.

You mentioned that the film went down well with some Christian groups in the deep south. I just wondered that if over the years the film had been used by any religious groups as some kind of manual or warning, or indeed if any of them had actually contacted you about it? There’s this whole cult status among religious groups.

I’d like to think that would happen! We did have, surprising to me anyway, a sojong in the south and the young students, who were our guides through the distribution of the film, had a greater feeling, probably because they came from all over the United States, of what kind of reception we would have where, and how we would handle the PR and all that. They felt that we should literally take the bull by the horns with the priests and ministers in the south, so they arranged prayer breakfasts which are usually to talk about politics and not about films. They consulted with us after they had seen the film and we got them really interested. They loved the scenes on the beach and on the cliffs and Edward’s performance. They also loved his speech inside the Wicker Man, which you might be interested to know was the actual speech that Sir Walter Raleigh made before he went to the block (to be beheaded). Tony Schaffer suddenly found it almost hours  before we actually shot the scene because we weren’t very happy with the dialogue which we had at that point and insisted it be used. It was a very good decision.

There’s been stories of footage from the film being under the M3 and Christopher Lee has said that an awful lot had been lost. However, seeing this today and the bits that you’ve taken out, surely we’ve seen everything now, haven’t we?

Well, there’s nothing else that isn’t already there. As I’m sure you’re aware that when you cut a film you have the beginnings and endings of scenes and sometimes you eliminate a take which doesn’t contribute to the whole scene, so that certainly happened with this. As i said earlier, I’ve taken out some complete scenes at the police station from the beginning of the film as I didn’t think they were really necessary. If you allow too many longeurs at the beginning then it starts to tell on the pace of the film at the end, because of the experience of the audience and the whole continuum. I don’t think that we have lost anything that you would really miss. There was a sequence that Christopher misses and I understand why. Tony Schaffer and I went and studied apples at East Grinstead where there are these orchards that contain every single type of apple. When they want to make a new hybrid, they take the cutting from one and from the other and put it in this air and insect proof glasshouse. Then you have an entirely new apple. Anyway we got a bit carried away one day with writing all about this apple lore for Christopher to say and he loved it. He said it all. When we got to the cutting room we thought, perhaps this is a little too much. If Christopher was here I wouldn’t have told you that!

Christopher Lee has always said that the original negative is out there somewhere, did it go down into a hole under the M3, is that true or a myth?

Well I find it very hard to believe, I mean if you were a worker digging up the road with your drill and you needed something to fill your hole, can you imagine him saying, “By the way guv, let’s send up to Shepperton for some negatives.” Not very likely! I can’t say honestly that I know it didn’t happen but it seems wildly unlikely, but it doesn’t really matter because for a Studio not to have saved the negative is an unbelievable, almost blasphemous, thing in the film industry. No one could believe, even the people that ran British Lion, would consider such a thing and so I think it was just put somewhere where it was out of harm’s way and they just kept telling me that they hadn’t got it. They hoped that we would then never restore the film of course. These students were marvelous, it was like a university project. Even when it came to raising the money, they all went to various areas of the east cost of the United States where they lived and persuaded doctors and dentists to help finance the restoration.

There was a Wicker Man fanzine called “Nuada” and then Alex Cox’s Moviedrome series for the BBC screened the film in 1988 which revived interest in the film. Were you aware of this?

No, i was living in the United States at that time. There has been an underground fan thing for some time and it gets revived every now and again. I mean first we had the film on video and there was a big marketing push for that. Then we had the brilliant campaign from America for the DVD’s where they put them all in these beautiful cigar boxes and burnt into the wooden top of the box a Wicker Man and they sent out 50,000 of those at the start of the campaign. That’s more than 20 years ago and now we are about to have the blu ray and we have this new print.

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